Papa-Giorgi or Papagiorgi (father George) woke up early on Wednesday morning. The papadia was still curled under the heavy paploma that she hogged in the night. Round and lumpy. Snoring. Still sleeping through the light that streamed around the serrated edges of the Venetian blinds.
Papagiorgi sat up with a cold sweat. His night shirt was soaked. His arms tense and strong. He ran his firm but soft fingers over his chest. It was once a black forest of pride.
The papadia (priest’s wife) had come late to bed. The mirror door on the Laminex walnut wardrobe was left ajar. His rasa was hanging on a wooden coat hanger and the smell of mothballs was starting to irritate him. For months he had been pushing one thought to the back of his mind.
Papagiorgi’s dilemma: the successor
It would work, but then the thought returned. This morning, he couldn’t stop it. Who is my successor?
He had gone up and down the family tree a thousand times before. They were all useless. Not one could string a sentence together. His eldest son, a brute, was the reason they had to leave the village near Kastoria.
His breathing was getting harder, heavier, hotter. He turned his back to the papadia and his feet rested on the red flokati rug. Below was the cold linoleum floor in faded blue and beige.
It was well past dawn but none of his five children was awake. He had decided.
Before lunch I will ring my nephew Dimitri.
Papagiorgi took pride in his signature. Few in his village could even write. He always carried a gun under his rasa and a pen in his breast pocket. He signed with a flourish – an upswing on the final letter. Underneath his name he always added: 70th.
From the time of Bessarion there was a priest that carried the family name. Despite centuries of famine, invasions by the Turks, exile from Trabzon and migration to Australia the chain remained unbroken. Seventy generation of priest. Sitting at the edge of his bed in a working-class suburb in Melbourne he pondered.
This cannot be the end of the line.
But which son could follow? The street fighting rogue was bad enough, but worse were the venal shopkeepers whose only dream was to own a racehorse. It wasn’t that they were shifty, it was that they did not know how to form words in a shape that took others in. They went to school, but they remained amorphotos (uneducated).
It was not just his sons that are practically mutes, he thought to himself. This whole country is allergic to language. People who play with language are seen as deviants here.
Papagiorgi went to the bathroom. In the mirror modern life looked back at him. Aspirins, Colgate toothpaste, Lux soap. In the living room there was a Philips television.
On the road the neighbors parked their new Holden Monaro. Even he enjoyed the lazy boy recliner that was gifted to him for his last birthday. But now, in this generation of xenetia (migration) in the industrial city, the lineage of his faith would disappear.
Papagiorgi existed because he was the link. He needed another arm to join his.
The blue in his eyes started to well up with tears. His house was near the bay. He walked to feel the divine comfort of an open horizon. The water was calm. He breathed slowly.
Blue is the color of eternity.
It can pass through you and leave no mark.
Papagiorgi met his nephew Dimitri in a kafenion later in the afternoon. It was during the lull. The older men who came in the morning to play backgammon and criticize each other had gone home to lunch with their wives. The younger ones who worked had not arrived to play poker on the green felt tables.
‘I want you to take over my position as priest.’
Dimitri was staring into Papagiorgi’s moist eyes. They had stopped blinking. His hands were squeezing the Formica table. A loose screw on the dimpled metal rim provided an edge of distraction. His forefinger was flicking along its surface. No other part of his body moved.
Dimitri stopped rocking on his chair.
‘Theio – uncle. You know that I have given up my medical degree. I like to gamble on the dogs. Many of my friends are gangsters and petty criminals. I give the waitress big tips as she pours the Chivas Regal whiskey at my all-night poker games. For a bit more money she will even sleep with me.’
Papagiorgi squinted. His lips tightened and both hands curled into fists.
‘And what sort of a man do you take me to be!’
Greek Priests: acceptance and repression
The Greek priests in Australia were no saints. One bishop would routinely send his junior priest to do baptisms in the rural towns so that he could sleep with his wife.
Many of the single women who arrived on the bridal ships were expected to be under the guidance of a priest until they met their husbands. One of the priests was famous for his care and preparation of the young brides.
There were no reports of pedophilia, from what I know. I met a priest in a gay bar in Manchester. My neighbour Stelios had spotted him. In a singular movement he sniffed, winced, and twirled in shocked protest.
‘And to think, I kissed his ring!’
I could not see the problem.
I also laughed when my colleague from Sydney arrived late for a panel on Greek-Australian literature and boasted of the previous night’s ‘orgies under the rasa’. There were never stories about pedophilia. Or anything that came anywhere near the rampant and structural abuse that occurred in the Catholic Church.
The Greek priests had their own peculiar hypocrisy, they did not flaunt their sexual prowess like a businessman arriving in a red sports car, nor did they celebrate the resplendent and turbid pool of passion in the rasping voice of a rembete. They appealed to the purity of faith, but also accepted the sly pull of the flesh. Even if sex was not openly discussed, it was not that hidden.
The priests could marry and have affairs. How did the women see the priests?
Were they the conductors of God’s will? Or, when the priest disrobed, there he was, just another naked hairy man?
After the affair was over, did they suffer in silence, too ashamed to speak of their passion, too confused to consider whether they were exploited, and too frightened to ask for anything? And there is the risk of doing nothing and having that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach getting heavier and heavier. Slowly you become that nothing. Until one day the grey magma of undigested thoughts erupts. Spewing like a volcano.
No-one ever told me how the women felt.
They had to keep their affair secret. In the silent echo chamber of a secret affair there are countless distortion effects. Hopes are inflated without check. Fear cascades into paranoia. If the man terminates the relationship without care or explanation, then how will she make sense of it? She will question everything that happened. But worst of all she will question herself.
Was I deceived? How did I let myself become deluded?
In the realm of fantasy, you can float to the heavens. Spiraling and spinning with each sign. Twirling higher in the thermal gestures. While eros rises above the clouds, one cruel ultimatum, and the abandoned lover plunges, and crashes to the ground. Gravity rules when philia and agape do not fasten onto eros.
Greeks take pride in the fact that ‘we are not Puritans’. Yet, there is an asymmetry when Greeks make light of a priest’s infidelity. They are endorsing the fuzzy boundaries of male sexuality but repressing feminine desire. The permissiveness bestowed to the men rests on the silence of the women. I don’t recall any story of a woman seducing a priest, getting her kicks, and then wearing a wry smile as the same priest presides over her wedding.
After decades of academic life my hands have become soft. If I spend more than a few hours pruning my pistachio trees in Aegina I get blisters. When I was a teenager, I did hard manual work throughout the school breaks. At university I discovered it was more profitable to be a barman. While working at Beachcombers restaurant in Elwood I was introduced to a Greek priest. He put his limp hand out for me to hold. As my calloused fingers touched his palms I recoiled as if I was being jolted by electricity. I had never touched such soft hands. They were velvet. For me velvet is too soft, it makes my hair stand. The priest looked at me with suspicion. The Cypriot restauranteur looked bemused. His wife led them to the table where a large lobster was waiting. I heard it squealing in the pot earlier.
On a recent visit to Venice, I made a map of the dozen churches that held paintings by Tintoretto. Some were in major tourist destinations like Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Others, like the Madonna dell’Orto in the sestiere of Cannaregio, are found at the end of narrow and dark Calle. Alone in a church you feel as if you are levitating. Reaching up to gaze into the eyes of the saints and opening your hands to touch the sinews between their muscles. The coolness of the church offers more than relief from the humidity.
In Agia Sophia, of Constantinople, geometry leads you to the mystery of the resurrection. The central cube of four columns provides the base to the earth. Above is the celestial dome of the heavens. Between the square of the earth and the circle of the heavens, are the mediating forms of triangles and hemi-spheres.
The Greek churches in Melbourne are mostly re-purposed Anglican churches that had fallen into ruin. The Greeks would quickly whitewash the exterior and commission artists to adorn the interior with icons and biblical scenes.
My mother-in-law was born in Shanghai. Her family had a mixture of European influences, including an uncle from Tallin in Estonia and is Russian Orthodox. She enjoyed the Greek rituals. For her funeral she wanted all the guests to light a brown paraffin candle.
I rang Papachristo at Aghios Eustathios in South Melbourne and asked if I could buy some from his church.
‘Come and take as many as you need.’
‘I will leave a donation.’
‘That is not necessary. I am just happy that we can offer some small solace on this difficult day for you and your family.’
When I arrived later that afternoon the church was pristine and empty.
I sat alone on a long wooden pew. My shoulders surrendered. My eyes were caught in the sight of a light flickering in the horizon.
I recalled the time we attended the midnight service on Easter Saturday at Papagiorgi’s church in Port Melbourne. I was thrilled. It was deliciously late. Before we left the house my uncle Nikiforo had the television on. An old black and white version of the hunchback of Notre Dame was being screened.
When we arrived at the church the crowd had already spread to the other side of the road. I was holding onto the trouser legs of my uncle. It was dark amidst the rows of men in suits and women in long pencil dresses. I tugged harder. My uncle lifted me onto his shoulders.
Looking over a red brick wall I saw an even larger crowd.
There was a sparkling constellation of candle lights. As if at the vanishing point of a Renaissance painting, there was the figure of man with a halo being carried on a litter.
Prof. Nikos Papastergiadis is the Director of the Research Unit in Public Cultures, based at The University of Melbourne. He is a Professor in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne.